If COVID is shown to have leaked from a lab, searching for those that authored the disaster would be necessary fact-finding before doing justice.
At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, history-minded columnists started cracking open their books and looking for what happened in plagues of the past. Maybe that would be a guide to the near-term future. And indeed, we saw history repeat itself: some people shutting in for fear of the illness, others living almost more hedonistically, lest they miss out on some of life’s joy before the end. Cities emptying and their inhabitants spreading the disease into the provinces and countryside. We saw New York City seed most of the American nation with coronavirus. In the chronicles of the late Middle Ages we find ecstatic religious movements taking to the streets to do reparation before God. In 2020 we saw protests around the world. Pandemics can bring rioting. Ditto. And in the past there was scapegoating, usually of Jews. We watched mayor Bill DeBlasio calling out the Orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, even as Black Lives Matter defied social distancing and curfews imposed on everyone else.
But now we may have something new in a pandemic: a handful of guilty humans and governments.
You may have noticed that after a year in which almost every health authority closed ranks to say that it was ridiculous to believe that COVID-19 emerged from a lab in Wuhan, now there is a rush to the microphones and newspapers to at least entertain the lab-leak theory. Dr. Fauci himself, who had dismissed the lab-escape theory as unscientific, is now saying he is “not convinced” that COVID emerged in nature, or at a wet market. Even the head of the World Health Organization said the lab leak couldn’t be ruled out, after a WHO investigation that was practically designed to rule out the lab -eak theory. Now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that U.S. intelligence had reports in November of 2019 that several staff at the Wuhan lab fell sick and had to be hospitalized.
Without even getting into the even hotter question of whether COVID-19 was deliberately created by human lab workers as part of “gain of function” experiment, if the lab-leak theory is true, COVID-19 becomes the single worst man-made disaster in human history. Nothing else would remotely be close.
The ultimate death toll from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster is hotly disputed. The immediate death toll is anywhere from 31 to 54. But that just barely touches the effects of radiation, which affected tens of thousands of people, especially those who were involved in the cleanup and entombment of the site. But even at the furthest end, when we extrapolate generously from measurable upticks in cancers, it is hard to find serious direct harm beyond the scale of perhaps 2 million people, inclusive of those resettled, those who reported any health problems, or those aborted after European health authorities advised such almost immediately after the accident. The Union Carbide chemical-plant disaster in Bhopal, India, gassed somewhere between 15,000 and 20,000 people to death and inflicted serious long-term health problems on perhaps half a million others.
COVID-19 dwarfs these. As of now, the World Health Organization estimates that nearly 3.5 million people have died of COVID-19 globally. Some estimates suggest that between $16 and $28 trillion was lost in global economic output owing to the shutdowns, lockdowns, and supply-chain disruptions that followed it. School closures affected 1.6 billion people. And that barely begins to talk about the small but unforgettable losses that lockdowns imposed on our lives — the lost reunions, the family turmoil, the funerals and weddings never attended.
For many it would be psychologically easier if COVID-19 were a product of nature, or the will of Nature’s God. The cruelty and inscrutability of nature is easier to accept.
But what if all this mountain of suffering the last two years was the product of bad safety practices at a lab in a city most people had never heard of until 2020? Or if it was partly down to the fault of a political party, the Chinese Communist Party — which, seeking to avoid embarrassment, prevented the world from discovering the nature of this outbreak when there was time to do something to prevent it from going global? Or if it was the fault of American officials who underwrote gain-of-function research overseas, despite the foreseeable risks of trying to make viruses found in nature more infective in human beings?
If COVID-19 is a man-made disaster, searching for the people, the institutions, and the governments that authored this disaster is not scapegoating, it’s necessary fact-finding before doing justice.
What might justice look like in practice? It might include global bans on gain-of-function research. This one measure alone would constitute a kind of quiet revolution, an admission that not every kind of scientific research is in fact beneficial to humanity. The reputation of the entire scientific enterprise itself would suffer immensely from the fallout.
If it was a gain-of-function research project gone wrong, then the public-health officials who supported and authorized it will meet a dramatic fall from the stature they attained in the past year.
And if subsequent research and investigations can show that actions of the Chinese government actions — its stonewalling, and its manipulation of the World Health Organization at the outset of the pandemic — contributed to an overall worse global outcome, it might be time to bring up the word “reparations” in international affairs again.
The process of discovery is only just beginning.